“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster,
which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”
– William Shakespeare, Othello
Jacob travels a lot for work. Jacob can’t bear thinking about his wife, Darlene, sitting in a restaurant alone while he’s away, or even taking her car to their local garage. Why? He’s jealous. He is sure that a dashing man will approach her as she eats her meal, or that the mechanic Jacob is sure has a crush on Darlene will do something inappropriate, get too close, take liberties. Darlene feels heartsick that Jacob seems to trust her so little. “I trust you,” he says. “It’s men I don’t trust.”
Valerie is head over heels in love with Tom. He loves her too, and she knows he is the one for her. But she is eaten alive by thoughts of women from his past. These are old, finished relationships, but the idea that he loved other women besides her keeps her awake at night. She tries not to imagine his voice saying, “I love you,” to his former wife, or his high school sweetheart, but she does it anyway, until she is crawling out of her skin. She knows it is irrational, but she can’t help herself.
Jealousy has been wreaking havoc on relationships and people’s peace of mind for as long as human beings have been walking the planet. It is an emotion that is rooted in fear.
Fear of loss or abandonment, or even fear of humiliation. Related to these fears are other issues that often pertain, such as suspicion, possessiveness, low self-esteem, rage, a sense of entitlement, the desire to control someone. Some jealousy arises from a sense of self-preservation, harking back no doubt to much more primal times when the proximity of a partner could literally mean the difference between life and death. Focusing our rage on the “threatening other” is a way of preserving the status quo and staying safe.
Jealousy is no laughing matter. It is the leading cause of spousal homicide worldwide. Although clearly most jealous partners do not resort to murder, jealousy creates potentially devastating relationship conflict. Though Jacob never went so far as to accuse Darlene of infidelity, or even of encouraging the imaginary predatory men who were about to be her undoing, she felt her autonomy was being undermined, and that her husband did not trust her. Eventually, she wondered if he was the one being unfaithful feared that maybe he was projecting his own issues on to her. Until they sought help for this situation, their marriage was looking pretty shaky. Jacob’s jealousy almost drove Darlene away.
Where does jealousy come from?
Feeling threatened. Valerie was threatened by women no longer in Tom’s life! Whether you are threatened by a real or imaginary other person, you fear being abandoned in favor of someone “better” – e.g. younger, prettier, smarter, richer. In relationships this works just as sibling jealousy does, when a child fears being replaced by the new baby.
History of betrayal. If you have in fact been betrayed in the past by a lover, you are much more likely to become suspicious in your next relationship. You’ve been there… It will take time to get you to feeling secure again. You and your partner can work on this together.
Anxiety. Your worry about losing a loved one can come out in any number of ways. You might dissolve with fear every time your partner gets on a plane, imagining the worst. The same might happen whenever your partner goes out in public. You imagine the worst. Someone else will snatch him or her up… and you lose out.
Attachment wounds. Some people, for whatever reason (subject for another blog perhaps), need more reassurance than others. If you are partnered with someone like this, or if you are someone like this, it is not a “fault” – simply a fact. Dealing with that fact on an ongoing basis can help avoid jealousy-related disaster down the line.
Unstable relationship. If a relationship is fragile, jealousy is more likely. Does one of you constantly threaten the relationship? (For example, “Maybe I should just leave. We obviously can’t get along!”) Is one of you emotionally unavailable? There are many reasons for a relationship to be unstable, but addressing the connection between you and your partner is vital to eliminating the green-eyed monster.
How to get off the jealousy merry-go-round:
Check your beliefs about yourself. How do you reinforce your beliefs? Do you constantly tell yourself, “I’m no good,” or “I’m getting old,” or “I can’t do anything right?” Or does your self-talk shore you up and confirm your wonderfulness? “Look at me –pretty sexy today!” or “Damn I’m good – I wrote that report in less than two hours!” or “I can do this if I put my mind to it.” When you recognize and reaffirm your worth, you won’t feel at the mercy of the fear that leads to jealousy.
Don’t compare yourself to others. What is the point? You are you – not any of “them.” Whatever and whoever you are, sassy, shy, kind, brilliant, strong, tender, independent, funny, you need not set yourself up against others. Your only benchmark for you, is you, and your growth, and your awesomeness!
Check in with yourself. When you feel jealous, stop and ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this way? What am I afraid of?” Take a clear-eyed look: is this threat real or imagined? Figure out what your particular triggers are. The more aware of your thoughts you are, the better you’ll be able to control your emotions.
Learn to channel your emotions. If your emotions, for example jealousy, seem to “take over” without your permission, learn ways to safely release them. Meditation techniques, such as taking slow, deep breaths, really do help. (You can slow your heart rate by making your exhale a few beats longer than your inhale). Envision yourself calm and in control of your thoughts, perhaps rising up above your body where you can look down and see the anxiety-inducing fears leaking away.
Know that you cannot control what your partner feels or does. You are responsible for you. Controlling behavior has many sources and roots, but it is never supportive of a strong, equal relationship. Communication and acceptance are where you can start to back away from that feeling of “needing control” over every little thing.
Do not make your partner the center of your universe. Feeling love, trust, and commitment are good. Feeling lost in another person, or 100% dependent, are red flags. See last week’s blog, Loss of Self: Love Doesn’t Mean You Have to Disappear for tips.
Do not threaten the relationship. Some people use this strategy as a fallback when fighting. “I can just leave!” or “Maybe we should just split up!” – these are strategies to make you feel stronger, but at the expense of the relationship and your connection to your partner. Of course a break-up can happen, and you need to know that if that happens, you will be okay. But holding a sword over the neck of your relationship is guaranteed to create instability that can lead to jealousy and other negative outcomes.
The jealousy dogging your relationship might be a red flag – telling you your current relationship is unstable. Maybe you are dealing with an unfaithful or unreliable partner, or one who is overcome with feelings of irrational, controlling jealousy. If so, it may be time to cut your losses. But if the jealousy is unfounded, and a symptom of emotions or history that can be sorted out with your partner, with or without a therapist or relationship coach, all the better. Understanding those underlying issues will make your relationship stronger and help you feel more in control of your emotions.